Monday, November 10, 2014

A Solution To The Cost of Free Books

Taylor Swift, pop culture’s current darling, turned heads when she declined Spotify the chance to play any of her music.  The controversy has gotten her a lot of publicity and her music sales are soaring up the charts.  The issue over free content in music, books, movies, and television is one that really needs to be explored.

Authors and publishers have been experimenting the last few years with free books.  Up until the digital revolution it was cost-prohibitive to hand out free books.  Not only did you have the cost of producing a paper book to factor in, but you had shipping and mailing costs to worry about.  But prior to the ebook movement, authors and publishers would hand out some free copies to people in the media, influencers, or people they hoped to impress and secure big sales orders or glowing testimonials.  But the amount of books given away was limited.

Now, with the advent of the eBook, authors and publishers can distribute free books to the masses.  For instance, Amazon allows you to make the Kindle version available for free for a select period of time.  In just a few days even unknown, unproven authors can get thousands of downloads.  You may say that publishers lose potential sales by handing something away that could be sold, but others will say that the free introduction to an otherwise ignored writer provides two opportunities at sales.

First, if the book is really good and embraced by the freeloaders, word of mouth will spread and now thousands of others will be encouraged to buy the book.

Second, if the author has published other books, he or she can hope that the freeloaders will love their book so much that they’ll feel compelled to seek out the other paid works of the talented author.

The thinking behind free books could work on an individual level, as either or both of the stated scenarios have worked for many authors.  There’s even a third potential payoff.  Let’s say the free book is intended as a loss leader for the author to drum up sales of non-books or to generate paid consulting gigs.  Getting, say, a book about retirement planning and financial investing out to thousands of people could lead to them visiting the author’s side where services and products that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars are made available.

It would seem that the free book concept makes sense for the author.  To give the book away costs noting to the author.  Further, not every free download was otherwise destined to be a sale.  People only got the book because it was free, not because they wanted it.  But for the industry, free books are extremely costly and pose the greatest threat to it, right up there with declining print, vanishing bookstores, and Amazon pricing and monopolization.

Here’s why free books are not good:

1.      People get used to free content and come to expect to keep reading without paying.  Blogs and online media content were the first wave of free and now books are being given away like it means nothing.

2.      Even as people still pay for books, they will soon see price deflation, because paid can’t compete with free.  Everyone’s lowering their prices to salvage sales.

3.      Time is a big factor.  Readers don’t have enough time nor the desire to read a zillion books.  Every minute they spend reading a free book is a moment taken away from buying a book and reading it.

4.      People are less apt to invest much time or effort into something they get for free.  Books should not be commoditized or seen as disposable.  Books must be revered, saved, displayed, shared, and discussed as part of the cultural fabric that bonds us together.

5.      The more time people spend on free digital books, the less time they spend in a bookstore buying printed books.  The industry needs paper to exist and for the book market to have a physical gathering place and showcasing presence.

Free books put the author vs. the industry.  In the short-term, individuals who dabble in free will prosper from what they do.  In the long-term, the industry will suffer for it  We need a compromise.  How about free starts?

Yes, you download a book and can read the first 20% of it for free.  If you like it and want to continue, you pay for it.  Maybe you get a discount or maybe you get some other bonus for converting free into pay, but something must be done to incentivize people to try unknown authors while rewarding those with good books and doing so in a way that doesn’t harm the ecosystem of the book industry.

Now, if I can only tackle a way to make money from this blog!

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Media Connect, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2014

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